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The Hon Peter Garrett AM MP
Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts

Threatened Species Scientific Committee assessment of the koala

E&OE Transcript
Interview with Annie Gaffney
ABC Sunshine and Cooloola Coasts
25 May 2010

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GAFFNEY: Now to Mr Peter Garrett, the Federal Environment Minister. Minister, good morning and thanks for having a chat.

GARRETT: Hi, Annie.

GAFFNEY: The koala is the fourth most recognisable animal in the world and one of Australia's iconic species. International tourists flock to our wildlife parks to see this animal, have their picture snapped with one. How seriously do you think we're taking its protection in this country?

GARRETT: Well Annie, I'm taking it seriously because we're assessing it for listing as a threatened species under the national environmental law.

And that's one thing I've got to say about Deb's remarks is that she still doesn't seem to fully comprehend that this process is one which is laid out very clearly and that I have initiated the process. And the whole purpose of initiating the process is to get the advice from the Threatened Species Scientific Committee to me, as the Federal Minister, on whether or not the koala ought to be listed as a threatened species.

And that's the absolutely right thing for me as national Environment Minister to do. And that process is well underway and it will be completed by September.

GAFFNEY: So are you saying that the koala could be given threatened protection or endangered protection?

GARRETT: Well again, this is why it's important to have a reasonable debate about this issue. I care very much about koalas. But it's going to be up to the Threatened Species Committee to provide me with their recommendation.

And that's appropriate. They are the experts. And so I'm not going to second guess what they're going bring to me.

Yes, we identified the potential for listings such as conservation dependent status and other kinds, but it's up to them to bring that information through to me, and that's the whole point.

You know, we take comments from the public. They haven't made a decision yet on the koala's eligibility. And they assess that eligibility against all of the relevant categories.

Now, the important thing here is that I've written to the Koala Foundation and they're very critical of the department and the officials. But the fact is that they have to provide substantial information on the methodology that's used to produce their maps. They've got to be able to bring forward material that matches the level of material that comes when the Threatened Species Committee looks at other species that are being proposed for listing as well.

I think that's quite reasonable and I have a great deal of confidence in the Committee, by the way, that will bring me through a recommendation recognising what the status of the koala is.

GAFFNEY: Now, with an estimated 43,000 koalas left in the wild, according to Deborah Tabart, we're hearing figures - or she was stating there that you've put out figures - of around 400,000 koalas left in the wild in Australia. Why do we have this great discrepancy in the numbers?

GARRETT: Well I think one of the reasons that there are a range of different numbers is because koalas in different parts of Australia are under different levels of threat. It is certainly the case that in south-east Queensland you do have significant and challenging issues in relation to koala populations. No question about that at all.

But in other parts of Australia, koalas are not considered to be in such a serious state and in some places populations are quite healthy. We've got large and stable and even increasing populations in other areas. So it's not one of these things that you can come up with a sort of a simple ‘this is what the story is in Australia’. It's actually different from state to state.

But look, the key point here is that I initiated this process because I recognised that it was something which the Threatened Species Committee needed to provide me with advice about. And I did it because I really do understand and accept that the koala issue is a really important one, particularly in the south-east.

And the whole point about the exercise is that everybody has an opportunity to participate. It's an open process; public comment up until 9 June. Anyone who's interested, I really invite them to have a say.

The committee then looks at all the submissions that come in. They then provide me with recommendations about listing. I'll consider those recommendations very carefully, as I do others. And once it is listed, depending on what the listing status is, then a number of other steps come into play.

But I don't want to get ahead of that. It wouldn't be proper for me as a Minister to do that. It's a decision that's based on science and it's a decision based on whether the species meets the listing criteria.

GAFFNEY: All right. So you've spoken there about numbers in terms of koala populations throughout Australia being quite different. There are some healthy populations in some states and some quite vulnerable populations in areas like south-east Queensland, where we're down supposedly to around 2000 animals left in the wild.

So, could it be that we get a different listing and status for the koala here in south-east Queensland, for example? Deborah Tabart was saying that the animals listed as vulnerable in New South Wales and the population seems to be doing quite well there.

So could we see a different status given to the koala here in south-east Queensland?

GARRETT: Well look, the species committee will look at the case for listing any koala populations, including populations in a particular area, as part of its assessment. It didn't include the nomination for the Koala Coast region on the priority assessment list because it's looking at the question of national listing. And that's the whole point about the national laws.

The fact is that I know there's a number of actions that the Queensland Government have taken in relation to development matters. They are the province of the states. The purpose of having national listing is to provide a framework for consideration of species which we can see have got a vulnerable or a threatened status, if that's what the species committee says to me.

And my great hope is that we can work closely with our state colleagues and with local governments as well. There are instances of specific development controls being put - I know in the south-east on some particular sections of areas that are due for planning. I think that's a useful and a good thing to take place.

And it is the case that when you started the interview, Annie, you talked about the recognition of the koala as iconic. It is iconic. I mean, that's something that I'm only too aware of. So I guess just to say we're taking the issue very seriously.

We're not doing anything other than following what I think is a rigorous process, making sure that the advice that comes to me is advice that's based in science, and I don't think it's an appropriate environment to have a lot of personal attacks about what Peter Garrett should or shouldn't do.

I've got to act properly as the minister. I'll be judged in doing that and I want to do the job as competently as I can, and I take the best advice that I can to make the decision.

GAFFNEY: In a nutshell, can you explain to us what conservation dependent status actually means? What kind of protection could that give the koala if that's what it was granted by the end of this year?

GARRETT: It would be - well, we don't know whether it will be granted or not. But it means amongst other things that you look at whether or not there's the necessity for things like recovery plans. You look at whether there's going to be an impact on the species in relation to development matters and whether we can work with our state colleagues to put in place what we think are necessary measures to deal with that conservation dependent status.

We've already got some initiatives taking place through the ministers themselves. We're looking pretty closely at ways in which we can work better between the states and with the Commonwealth. We've a National Koala Strategy that we want to bring through. That means that we coordinate plans and actions to conserve and manage koalas.

And we've looked at some of those issues and some of things that the state and Australian governments have already undertaken up to this point in time. We'll work with the stakeholders, we'll work with researchers, we'll work with local governments, we'll work with conservation groups and we'll work with developers.

Traditionally, these issues, planning issues, are state-based issues, but we recognise that there's a national interest in play and that's why we're looking at the question of national listing. Once the national listing decision has been made, we'll work closely with all the parties involved to make sure that whatever the national listing is, we can give good effect to it.

GAFFNEY: How concerned are you, by comments there made by Deborah Tabart, that the minister here in Queensland recognises that the koala could be functionally extinct in less than a year? I mean, it doesn't sound like a very good term, Minister.

GARRETT: No, it doesn't. But I've got to say that, you know, there's a fair bit of flaming rhetoric that goes on in this debate. I understand that people have got strong feelings about it. I don't know about those comments, by the way. I haven't heard them myself. I do know the Queensland Government is aware of this issue, as the governments and local councils are in other parts of Australia as well.

And again, I guess the key thing to say is that we really would encourage koala researchers, who have got relevant information, to provide it to the committee. They need all the data to be subject to appropriate review. That's how you make proper decisions when you're a government.

But if that committee comes back to me with recommendations, whatever that recommendation will be, I'll look at it very closely. If it's been done in a thorough way - and I've no reason to think that it won't be - then my expectation would be that we would look very closely at their recommendation and where necessary, put it into place.

GAFFNEY: Minister, thanks so much for making the time to have a chat this morning.

GARRETT: Thanks, Annie.

[ENDS]

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